Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin- is one of the most important, yet often lacking, vitamins in our diets. Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium leading to stronger teeth and bones. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin at every age as bone is a living tissue and needs a constant supply of calcium. Most importantly we lay down 90% of the calcium in our bones by the time we’re 18 years of age and ensuring we have a vitamin D rich diet in childhood and the teenage years is vital. There is also evidence to suggest that vitamin D may play a role in the prevention of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus (type 1 diabetes), some inflammatory and autoimmune diseases and some forms of cancer. The current recommendation for vitamin D is up to 10µg/day depending on how much sunlight you get.
Many Irish people have low vitamin D levels. In children, we are seeing an emergence of rickets disease which had been eradicated 60 years ago. Rickets effects major bone development in children. In adults, vitamin D deficiency can lead to osteomalacia (softening of the bones).
Our bodies can make vitamin D from sunlight but as we all know there is a distinct lack of sunlight in Ireland! We get very little, if any, vitamin D from sunlight from October to end of March. Women get even less exposure as many of our foundations and face and hand creams contain SPF which further block our skin from the suns rays. There is a number of foods where we can get vitamin D including;
- Oily fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout
- Eggs particularly the yolks
- Vitamin D fortified foods such as fat spreads, milk, yogurt and cereals.
There are also lots of supplements which contain vitamin D which can help top up your vitamin D stores during the winter months. Taking a vitamin D supplement during the ‘school term’ months and taking a break over the brighter summer months ensures healthy vitamin D levels all year round. There are lots of vitamin D supplements on the market and all multi vitamin supplements and cod liver oil contains vitamin D.
For some groups a vitamin D supplement is specifically recommended. Since babies only have small vitamin D stores at birth and should never be exposed to direct sunlight the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends that all babies aged 0-12 months are given a vitamin D supplement (up to 5µg/ day). Special baby brands are available in your chemist (Abidec Vitamin D3, Baby Vit D3 by Shield Health and Baby D by Kora Healthcare). This is especially important if your baby is breastfed as breast milk contains low levels of vitamin D. Formula feeds and follow on milks are fortified with vitamin D. Elderly people, those confined to indoors, those who cover up for cultural or religious reasons or those with certain medical conditions may also benefit from a vitamin D supplement.
Dr. Aoife Carey is registered dietitian and clinical researcher. Having completed a degree in Dietetics in Northern Ireland she pursued her interest in childhood nutrition by obtaining a PhD in paediatric nutrition in 2012. As a keen runner and weightlifter she is passionate about the role nutrition can play in optimising health